Walking Back From the Abyss of Violence

staircase-962784_1920The latest (for now) mass shooting in Las Vegas was the deadliest shooting so far with 58 dying as well as the shooter. Sadly, it seems that these horrors are becoming a regular occurrence, complete with victim accounts, an attempt to understand the shooter, thoughts, prayers, and candlelight vigils and renewed outcries that something must be done to limit guns in a nation where there is nearly a gun for every person already.

The reality is that this is nearly a daily occurrence. According to a Guardian story, in the 1735 days ending on October 1 when the Las Vegas shooting took place, there were 1,516 mass shootings (defined as an event where four or more people were shot, not including the shooter). This does not count the “routine” violence occurring in our major cities. For example nearly as many die every month in Chicago as died in Las Vegas. A Vox report on gun violence reports that 2900 people have died at the hands of police since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson (police are also at greater risk in states with more guns). The same report contends that guns allow people to kill themselves more easily and that where gun access is limited, suicide deaths drop. It may be that the only person your gun will ever kill is someone you love, or even yourself.

Before I go any further, I am not going to advocate any gun control measure, nor am I going to advocate gun rights. I think we are at a stalemate and there are plenty to argue one way or the other. I’m not going to join either chorus. Rather, I want to suggest that these almost daily reports of terrible shootings and the other forms of gun violence, along with our rancorous discourse, suggest we are becoming an increasingly violent society, and that if we don’t obliterate ourselves in a nuclear winter, we might be headed toward a violent, anarchic abyss.

Do we in truth want to live in one of the most violent societies in the world? What I want to propose is that we make a collective decision to walk away from the abyss of violence in our national life.

What I mean by this is that we begin the long and arduous journey to conceive a different kind of society from the one that alternately celebrates and grieves violence. Rather than looking for some kind of quick legislative fix or imposition of government power, I want to propose a movement that may take a generation, just as the campaigns to discourage smoking and warn of the dangers cigarettes pose in terms of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. As I child, I saw ads saying cigarettes were good for you. Now any ad, and every container of cigarettes warns of the health risks. For years, I had to inhale other people’s smoke in public places. Now my right to a smoke-free environment is protected in many public places. It took fifty years to get to this point.

Perhaps this journey needs to begin with a realization that we are all complicit in this violent society. Liberal Hollywood, the gaming industry, and all of us who consume their products participate in a celebration of violence. We may complain about those who manufacture assault rifles and other lethal instruments, and those who own them but how often do we passively absorb scenes of cinematic violence or participate in various forms of virtual violence? While most of us never conceive of violence, do we create a glamour around violence that suggests to some who don’t share our restraints, that violence is an acceptable way to go–often to one’s end?

Might we begin by agreeing that entertaining ourselves by virtual violence against human beings may not be the noblest of activities? If nothing else, there are other ways to employ our time, and a country as rich as ours provides many other outlets, including those that get us off our theater seating and toughen our bodies and minds.

* * * * *

Human beings will do all sorts of strange things when they don’t feel safe, from hoard water, to build underground shelters, to stockpile weapons, and to pass regulations and laws.  Most of the time, doing these things doesn’t make us any safer, they just give us some sense that we are in control.

A number of studies have shown that our number of confidants–real friends– has dropped (from roughly three to two on average). Likewise, there seems to be a correlation between time spent on social media and higher levels of anxiety. Correlation can’t determine which causes which or if there is some third factor. The past election cycle accentuated the phenomenon of “echo chambers” with the insidious addition of targeted ads playing to the tendencies of a given audience or even individuals. And social and other media amplify our fears of violence with the 24/7 news cycle. The old saw in the news world is that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

So, in addition to turning from our celebration of and pre-occupation with violence, might we turn from the things that induce fear? The truth is that while we have seen horrendous examples of gun violence, overall, gun violence, at least up to 2015, is down. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the possibility of future events like Las Vegas. It means dedicating ourselves to fostering a society where Las Vegas is even less likely to occur. Maybe rather than trying to limit guns, how do we foster a society where fewer people feel the need for them?

A few beginning thoughts:

  • Find out ways to re-neighbor with our real neighbors and build real community rather than the brittle virtual communities we’ve come to rely on that reinforce our fears and separate us off from the diversity of real humanity. This might also help us spot neighbors whose activity patterns are out of the ordinary and, where appropriate, “see something and say something.”
  • One common thread in so much violence is men.  Young men, old men, and men of every color. It seems to me we have to start asking what is going on with men that makes this resort to violence a choice a number are making. My hunch is that fathering may have something to do with it, and the absence of models to help boys pass into responsible and self-controlled manhood. It seems that much of the energy we spend on fighting about guns might be spent in understanding the men who use them.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to create incentives and easy paths to turn in guns, registered or not. Guns are often left behind on the death of someone and we should do all we can to make sure they as well disposed of as our recycling. This does nothing to limit the rights of gun owners. “How to Get Rid of a Gun” illustrates the challenges of legally disposing of guns. Our local county sheriff’s website gives detailed instructions on securing a concealed carry permit, but no instructions on legally disposing of guns.

I don’t think there are any easy answers. I’d have to look at this more than I have, but I suspect we’ve always been a violent nation. I don’t think fighting about gun control is going to change that, except maybe for the worse. Like so many things, I doubt things will change until we are sick and tired of being sick and tired and we turn from our love of violence in film and sport and our habits of verbal violence in so much of our discourse. I doubt things will change until we start paying attention to why so much gun violence is committed by men. We can provide easier ways to legally and safely dispose of guns without impairing the rights of anyone to own one, and maybe if done extensively, this could reduce the number of weapons out there that could fall into the wrong hands.

The real question it seems is do we have the national will to begin the hard work of forsaking a culture of violence. Will we keep after it for twenty, thirty, fifty years? If we survive long enough, we might bequeath a less violent country to our great-grandchildren.


“Do You Do Well to Be Angry?”

anger-1007186_1280“Do you do well to be angry?”

It’s a question God asks the pouting prophet Jonah sitting outside Nineveh, angry with God for sparing this city, Israel’s arch enemy. It’s a question we may well ask ourselves.

Yet another mass shooting resulting in the serious wounding of a senator and several others and the death of the 66 year old shooter, underscores the danger of unchecked anger. He called the President a “traitor” on social media, had been involved in a variety of angry altercations, and was deeply dissatisfied with the way things were going in the country.

Truthfully, he’s not so different from many, except that he made the fatal transition from anger to violence. We seem to live in a society with many angry people. It is dangerous to challenge rude or reckless behavior in a public setting. You could find yourself in a gunfight without even a knife.

Why are we so angry? I wonder if some of it is that everything from advertising to our schools suggest to us that we are the center of the universe and that we should fulfill all our longings. Reality doesn’t work like that. We share the planet with 7 billion other people. Maturity often calls upon us to live with unfulfilled desires. Yet we believe no one should get in our way on the road or delay us even a minute or two when we are running late for work or another scheduled event.

I also wonder if we are angry because we spend too much time listening to angry and inflammatory voices. Online pundits and much of the new media build their followings around arousing and feeding their following, no matter what the political persuasion. At times it can be quite entertaining, and then there is the twist, the inflammatory accusation, or even the suggest that the world would be a better place without X.

Most of us have enough of a sense of proportion to just laugh at this, or even the good sense to change the channel. But a steady diet of this can take its toll, kind of like too much refined sugar. Combined with personal frustrations and perhaps a sense of inadequacy, and inflammatory rhetoric ceases to be a laughing matter.

All this emphasizes how important it is to teach our children, and ourselves how to act constructively with our anger. We all experience anger, but the trick is figuring out how to use it constructively. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Be angry yet do not sin, do not let the sun set on your anger.” Yes we do get angry, but it doesn’t have to end badly. You can write that letter to your congressperson, propose that compromise with a co-worker you don’t see eye to eye with. Maybe going for a walk, a run, or digging your garden gives you time to work off the adrenaline and get some perspective.

Paul also makes a good observation, that anger is best when it is a brief moment, rather than a way of life. It is when it festers and grows bitter that it can become lethal. Anger is a place we are all going to visit, but none of us should live there.

So we might ask, “do we do well to be angry?” And with this, we might also ask, do we do well to arouse another’s anger, and to feed a lingering, free-floating sense of anger at the world, toward a particular group of people, a particular party?

It’s not just for ourselves that we might ask these things. It is also for those most vulnerable to giving way to anger. Contrary to the angry Cain’s question, we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. While I think people are responsible for their own anger, I would not want to be the one to help ratchet up the anger of another.

“Do you do well to be angry?”